To Be Black and Orthodox: Part of My Story


by John Gresham, Jr.

I have a friend who is considering becoming an Orthodox Christian. She is African-American and is concerned that by joining the Orthodox Church that she would be turning her back on black culture. While she likes everything about the ancient faith, she notices the lack of Negro spirituals and the preaching style of the church we grew up in. Also, except for me, I am the only native black American in the parish. While she is used to being the only black in some circles in her upbringing, that she would be a little more comfortable making the same plunge that I did if she saw more of us in the same pool. How is it possible to maintain a strong black identity in this white church?

As I have written in a previous article, the Orthodox Church is the white church that is not. Much of its spirituality comes from the teachings of the Desert Fathers of the Nile Valley. It is not uncommon for Eastern European monks and nuns to trace their ascetic practices back to St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Moses of Ethiopia. St. Athanasius, who was described by his rivals as a black dwarf, is the acknowledged hero of the First Ecumenical Council which underlined the true doctrine of the pre-existence of Jesus Christ. This saint would go on to be Bishop of Alexandria and all Africa and compile the books of the New Testament in 367 AD and the New Testament was officially canonized in a conference in Carthage 30 years later. Almost no White Anglo-Saxon Protestant church in this country would admit to such things. What saddens me is that very few, if any, African-American Protestant churches teach these things on a regular basis.

Also, the whites from Eastern Europe had nothing to do with the chattel slavery of our ancestors nor established the Jim Crow laws. Greeks and Serbs were slaves to the Ottoman Turks up until the early 1800’s. Russian monks defended the humanity and rights of Native Alaskans and helped push for the liberation of serfs (semi-slaves) in their own nation. Arabs, Lebanese, and Syrians do not consider themselves to be white. As for the Egyptians and Ethiopians, they certainly aren’t white. Thus, for a black American to become an Orthodox Christian is to join a universal body of believers that are not defined by Thomas Jefferson’s assumed white supremacy and Finis Dake’s Biblical misinterpretations of black “inferiority.”

Being an Orthodox Christian, I see myself as transcending America’s ignorant defining wall of race and embracing the ancient sense of being both black and Christian. In my icon corner, I have Cyprian of Carthage, Moses the Ethiopian, John the Dwarf and other heralded saints of Africa. As well, I have a dark skinned Theotokos and Christ that was written in the Slavic tradition and the Kursk-Root Icon of the Theotokos which is one of the holiest images of the Russian Orthodox Church. The pale skinned Christ Pantocrator at the top of my corner is the 6th century icon from Africa’s Sinai Peninsula. But, there is an Ethiopian icon of the Nativity beside it. I reject the American tradition of iconoclasm as it lends itself to white supremacy. I fully embrace the Orthodox tradition of iconography as ours is the faith of all peoples from the very beginning.

Of course, my Baptist upbringing is against “graven images” on biblical grounds. But, Orthodoxy Christianity also uses the bible to support the use of these “windows into heaven.” And the very first Orthodox Church I attended, St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond, I saw full sized icons of black saints and saw “white” people going up to, bowing before, and kissing them. Who’s interpretation should I trust; that of the ones who defended legal segregation and still maintains it by custom? Or, the multi-racial church leaders who came together in the eighth century who defined the proper place and use of holy images in the life of the Christian who knew no reason for skin color prejudice?

Being Orthodox, I am opposing the American Protestantism which ignores the history and wisdom of the African saints. Why should I not pray the words of St. Macarius the Great when Serbian school children have them in their prayer books? Why should I not seek guidance in the wisdom of St. Pachomius when Russian monks in West Virginia embrace the very lifestyle he taught? Oh don’t get me wrong; I honor my mother and father, rely on the strength of Harriet Tubman and David Walker, enjoy traditional black spiritual music, and have nothing against the Black Lives Matter fight against police brutality. But, any faith that teaches me that the African Saints don’t matter is a faith that does not teach black people the fullness of who they are in the eyes of God. The Orthodox maintain this Christian fullness with that of other holy men and women from Europe and the Near East. Fathers Seraphim Rose and Alexander Schmemann (two pillars of the Orthodox Church in the United States) frequently referred back to desert fathers in the formation of Christian worship and spiritual discipline as well as the monks of Mt. Athos or Valaam Monastery. Even in those hallowed places of contemplation, the African saints are highly revered. I see no reason why I shouldn’t follow suit.

Do I miss the form and style of African-American preaching? Sometimes I do. But, style without substance and sincerity is wasted. You take Dr. CAW Clarke, one of the greatest black preachers from back in the day. That man could “whoop” a sermon from the invocation to the benediction. But, his style was born out of the intense suffering of our people during the Jim Crow era that he lived in. Clark didn’t just “whoop,” but gave a lot of spiritual truth to his listeners. Too many preachers try to imitate his style not because of shared suffering, but out of the idea giving people what they like to hear. The same is true with the delivery style of Gardner C. Taylor (my biggest preaching influence). His slow and deliberate rise to a rousing crescendo of a shout was a reflection of the pain we suffer in this world rising to the hope and victory in the life of Christ. He did this with a theological mind second to none. While racism is still alive and well in this country, most black Christians have little or no idea what it is to have suffered like our parents and grandparents. We have lost the sense of humble suffering and reliance on God that they had as we are often too quick to protest the very slightest insult against us. Thank God the days of Jim Crow are (well, mostly) gone. But, without the sense of humble suffering and reliance on God for deliverance from this world and personal sin, our best Clarke and Gardner styles are mere mockeries.

Sadder still is the fact that so many black preachers today aren’t even trying to emulate these classic ministers. Way too often, modern preaching is dictated by whatever seems popular on “Christian” television. The mannerisms and styles of whatever preacher is amassing a great number of followers and generating the largest income is the patter that is being pedaled as “anointed preaching.” There is a great reliance on “Christianized” secular slogans to excite people to a point that some of the same things heard in a Friday or Saturday night dance club can be heard in a Sunday Morning sermon.

“Turn around three times and give a ‘high five’ to your neighbor.”

“Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party ’cause a Holy Ghost party don’t stop.”

If the old mothers of the Baptist church I grew up in could rise from the grave and hear this sort of preaching, a lot of ministers would be getting whippings!

The same is true for black religious music. Our slave ancestors didn’t have the luxury of pianos. They clapped, stomped, and perhaps played a drum. The songs they made came out of a faith born in struggle with both the outer demons that oppressed them and the inner demons of sin. During segregation, that same sense of music made in a faith born out of struggle carried over on pianos and in some cases, other instruments (at least one branch of black Pentecostalism had horns). Contemporary Gospel, like that in white American Christian circles, is nothing more than a Christian label thrown on the secular music forms. What is heard on a Rhythm & Blues radio station is no different than the Gospel station. Some of the “liturgical dance” performed even in the morning worship in some churches is the same as seen in dance clubs. Instead of the church being a thermostat of Godly change in the souls of black Christians, it is too often a thermometer going along with whatever is going on for the sake of being “relevant” and keeping young folk in the church. Sadly enough, one of the reasons why youth and young adults leave and aren’t very active in the church (black or white) is that secular music and dance is a lot more professionally done and done with more talent than the entertainment that is in church.

I recognize the best of my African-American Christian heritage. Among my treasured icons of the saints are photos of people who contributed greatly to my spiritual development. My cousin Oppielee, Deacon Louise Kersey, was known for her godly wisdom and love for others. Alex and Zechariah Jones were uncles I never knew but were known as no-nonsense deacons at St. John’s Baptist Church. Deacon H. L. Mays was my shop teacher and a well-loved example of Christian manhood. My mentor in ministry and grandfather in law, Rev. Carter Wicks, took my narrow behind under his wing when it came to being a preacher and pastor. I am ever mindful of the road they paved for and the legacy they left me as I pray before them and the other icons every morning and evening.

I kept the name I was given at birth when I was Chrismated into the Church out of respect for the two men whose legacy I will carry unto death. My Uncle John R. Thompson was a United States Marine when blacks weren’t supposed to be good enough to be Marines. After serving our nation in WWII, Johnny was known as a giving man who extended a hand of friendship to anyone who needed one. My father, John Robert, Sr., quietly broke color barriers as his aptitude test scores for AT&T technical trainees were among the highest in his entry class. Today, he is one of the most respected deacons in King William County for his wisdom and community service. I wasn’t asked to change my upbringing to become an Orthodox Christian. I didn’t.

But, my father also taught me not to follow what everyone else was doing for the sake of being like everyone else. So, I stand on his shoulders and those of Uncle Johnny. I am rooted in the faith of Dr. Clarke and Deacon Oppeliee. But, I have taken my African-American identity to the table where Moses the Black speaks with John Chrysostom. I stand with Ephrem the Syrian and Cyprian of Carthage. I take from the chalice of Ireland’s Patrick and Egypt’s Mary. Just as Malcolm X urged black Americans to look beyond the struggle of national Civil Rights and bring our struggles into the realm of worldwide human rights, I have brought my faith to the older and broader Church.

I pray my friend will see this and, in God’s time and way, come home to Orthodoxy. I pray others will do likewise.




To Be Black and Orthodox: Part of My Story


  1. John Gresham says:

    Pray for me, a sinner. May God continue the good work you are doing to encourage others to begin and stay on this journey to salvation.

  2. Fr. John says:

    John! Thank you for writing in. Your story is inspiring many others.

  3. Dr, Jeannie says:

    A very powerful testimony. I have long believed that Orthodoxy can speak to African Americans. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kevin Futrell says:


    I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your story. It inspired me. Take care.


  5. Nida Picton says:

    Thanks for story, but we need to get past black and white and strive to become who God wants us to be. With God there is no color, we need to be united as one church, not black and white Christians.

  6. Fr. John says:

    No doubt, but it is significant enough for us to mention, and significant enough for African-Americans to warrant a look if they notice they have brothers in Orthodoxy. It matters to know that you are welcome, without exceptions or barriers.

  7. Elaine S says:

    You neglected to mention the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. I was raised Catholic and we were taught about the various black saints.

    Your story is inspirational but as Nida States, it is time to get past black and white. Time to forgive others their sins and transgressions. As Jesus taught, turn the other cheek.

  8. Fr. John says:

    With respect, the ‘Black Madonna’ isn’t an icon of a black saint. Let’s not confuse the issue further.

  9. Servant of God says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. As an Black Eritrean, I can take pride in the fact the evangelism of Orthodoxy was not rooted in the enslavement of the masses, but it was a gateway of healing for the oppressed. AND the church has biblical roots in which you can visit the places mentioned in the bible (like Ethiopia and Alexandria) and there are ancient Orthodox churches planted there. Planted out of love of Christ and his people, not for dominion of power.

    And to address some earlier comments regarding the need for unity for Black and White Christians: yes, we need unity. But we need to recognize the Black community’s Black identity first.This includes the pain of oppression in a systemic system rooted from slavery, being told one’s not good enough due to Western beauty standards, and living in a society where we are the minority in which we are not apart of the hegemonic cultural structure. But more greater than our pain is our resilience.Being Black is not just a color, it’s an identity.

    Being Black means see the pain of my past and present, and lament with me, my White Orthodox brothers and sisters. How can we celebrate equality before lamenting the pain? If we want more Black brothers and sisters, non believers and otherwise to come to Christ and more specifically to Orthodoxy, we must not dust the past of slavery, Blackness, or history under the rug. But we must instead ask one another, “what are your struggles” “what makes you who you are”. We are all one in the faith and we are all God’s children. I am all for racial reconciliation, because we need peace and Christ is the ultimate reconciler. Just look at the case for the Samaritan Woman in the bible, race/ethnicity was emphasized, not blurred. Yet still, Christ was the reconciler.

  10. Thank you to the Eritrean brother/sister, no person should ever tell us to hide our suffering as if it is an easy thing to forget.
    It is totally apathetic to state that we should “get over it” and be “silent about our suffering”. While it is fine for Jews
    to commemorate the Holocaust, nobody tells them to “get over it”. People should abandon these double standards that reflect
    heterodox leanings.

    Christ came and suffered with us and he also displayed “righteous indignation”.

    Instead those who are intimidated by the reality of our suffering should ask, “how can I support you in your struggle?”.
    My Eritrean brother/sister mentioned this. Fact of the matter is that this article strengthens us people of colour in
    Our Orthodox faith because we all suffer from the White Supremacy of the Atheist/Heterodox West.

    No, we refuse to be silent concerning white supremacy that we suffer from because it is immoral.
    Heterodox Western Christianity (the Heretics) support the idol of white supremacy which Orthodoxy completely opposes.

  11. Nida is absolutely correct. We need to get pass black and white and see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We also need to eliminate labels, especially the term African American which is extremely offensive to many of us who are Americans and who happen to be black also. I have friends who are first and second generation Americans and they are called Americans, not some type of hyphenated Americans as we Americans who have been here for generations are not called.

    I have been Orthodox over 40 years and almost everywhere I have gone I have felt fully accepted just like everybody else. There were individuals who wanted to treat me differently, but they are very few of them. There were four incidents that I remember and I received an apology the next time for one of them.

    A friend once called me and told me that the reason that I was not ordained at the time is because of my race. When I said that I don’t think so, he replied, “Let’s face it! Where can they send you?” Immediately within five seconds I named at least six churches.

    The biggest problem that I encounter is from fellow black Americans who cannot understand why I would be Orthodox. When I admitted that I was the only black at my church, Jerel asked me “Don’t you feel out of place there?” Sheriah told me, “You don’t know who you is!” Sidney asked me “What possessed you to be Orthodox instead of Baptist?” and when I told him that I believe in what the Church teaches, he asked, “Have you looked at your skin lately?”

    The lack of diversity in the Orthodox Church in this country is not a defect in the Church. It is a reflection on the American society. I have attended countless meetings in which I have heard the cry for more diversity. At most neighborhood association and transit advocacy meetings which I attend, the number of black Americans is extremely small compared to the population in the area. But it might help if we take the words Russian, Greek, Serbian, Ukranian, etc., off the signs in front of our churches. A woman told me that she could not come to my church because the sign out front says “Russian Orthodox Church” and since she is not Russian, she feels that she does not belong. I reminded her that I am not Russian but I belong.

  12. Fr. Michael, thanks for writing! Your assessment is, I believe, correct. We can make it easier by simply putting “Orthodox Church” rather than 31 flavors, as it does mean something to the average American (basically, this isn’t for you), but at the same time crossing the divide gets easier with outreach, and getting to know good men like you, Fr. Nathaniel Johnson, Fr. Moses Berry, Fr. Jerome Sanderson, and John Gresham – to name but a few. Keep up the good work father, and please consider writing up your own journey story for us!

  13. bonniejohnstone says:

    Wonderful! Brought tears to my eyes my brother!
    You aren’t alone!
    My family is racially blended. I’m the White mother of two biracial African American adult children, three adult granddaughters…and several wiggly adopted African American grandsons. (My daughter has 9 children…6 adopted)
    We’re all Orthodox Christians…converts like you.
    Sometimes it does feel a little lonely, as though our message isn’t getting out to everyone and the Church feels too White. Then again, I’m impatient.

    This year Bishop Athanasius Akunda of Kenya visited our Parish (he is a friend of my Priest Fr. Evan Armatas). I brought my grandsons to meet the Bishop and he paid special attention to them. Because her went to seminary here, he realized that it was rare for them to see clergy that looked like them (it was their first experience).
    They were so excited! An African Bishop and people kissed his hand and treated him with such respect! The grandsons still speak about him!
    Oh how I pray that the Church will be represented by African-American, Hispanic, Asian…Indian…Clergy.
    My daughter has video podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio (Annalisa Boyd) and has written several books for children and one for mothers. (She also makes peg dolls…multi-racial Nuns, Priests, Monks etc.)

    To those who say race doesn’t matter…it does in a positive way because it is God created. Our Orthodox missionaries didn’t go into cultures and traditions spreading the Orthodox Faith with an agenda to wipe out native cultures. We believe that God works through the uniqueness of peoples. Let us listen to each other and not try to make someone feel less than whole.

    Lord Jesus Christ..have Mercy on me a Sinner

  14. Amen Bonnie! Well said. I must admit, I would love to publish your own Journey story. Please consider writing it up!

  15. “Heterodox Western Christianity (the Heretics) support the idol of white supremacy which Orthodoxy completely opposes.”


    While it may not have been your intent, the above portion of your comment would seem to paint every person who is a non-Orthodox Christian as a heretic, and that they all advocate white supremacy. This is not the case. As we are taught in Orthodoxy, only God can judge the heart. One of the toxic problems in America today is the tendency to think and say things at polarized ends of a spectrum, when the facts are somewhere in the middle. I understand your concerns, but we need to watch what we say. Constantly in Orthodoxy we are taught to love and not judge, certainly not to speak painting everyone the same, anymore than we would want to be painted the same.

    Blessings to all Brothers and Sisters of the Faith

  16. A thought for everyone… there were peoples of all skin colors in the history of the Church, even co-existing in great diversity throughout Biblical times. The continent of Africa, Asia,the Middle East and India was and is home to peoples from dark skin to brown to light of different tribes, ethnicities. People did not categorize themselves as different races, as is done in modern times. When we try to determine Biblical forefathers and mothers, the Apostles, the blessed Theotokos or anyone else’s skin color or “race”, we are missing the point. It is not what they looked like, it is who they believed in and what they did. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. There are still issues of prejudice in this world, no doubt. But there are also many people of goodwill who embrace all. The evil one uses these things to stir up further division among us. Let us not fall into the trap. God will bring peoples to Orthodoxy as individuals regardless of skin color. We do not need to push diversity as in the secular world, but work as a royal priesthood in witness to the Light of Christ to all people, including those of the same ancestral roots as us, and He will bring all peoples into His Holy Church.

  17. Suzie, non-Orthodox Christians are, by definition, heretics, but not all are willful heretics. It seems harsh to our post-modern ‘tolerance’ stuffed ears, but that is the fact. We do believe that only God judges the heart, but the Church has already judged heresies. It does not mean we don’t love them, or that God doesn’t love them, but we have a duty to speak the Truth in love. Heresy is false/non-Orthodox/heretodox teaching, and belonging to a body which teaches heresy makes one a de facto heretic, even if not a willful one.

Speak Your Mind